The Writing Life: what I want in a text editor

WHM describes what features the ideal text editor would have, including a word frequency tool and draft/chapter/section breaks (as opposed to page breaks).

A screen shot of my humor piece "Liberating the Joycean Corpus" as composed in gedit (click to see full size)

I do the bulk of my writing, including fiction, in a text editor. I like the simplicity of text editors. I like the fact that text files, even large ones, open quickly. I like that I can sync my text files with Dropbox and open and edit them on any phone and any computer and any tablet (although I don’t have a tablet yet) regardless of operating system or platform. I use gedit on my home Linux desktop and work MacBook and Notesy on my iPhone. Both are great tools. But I’d love to see a truly multi-platform text editor that was especially geared towards writers.

Here is what I would want in such a text editor:

Comprehensive dictionary

For writers, it would be useful to be able to peg the spellcheck to a specific dictionary and even edition of that dictionary, especially if you’re working with a defined house dictionary/edition. This would, of course, require paying licensing fees, but if they were reasonable, I’d be willing to pay.

Customizable colors

Being able to customize the color of the background and type is a must for me. This is an option on most desktop text editors — less so (or limited on) on the mobile ones. My preference is white on dark blue. It’d be cool if a multi-platform editor not only allowed customization (via a color wheel or sliders) but also came with several pre-sets.

In-document section breaks

It would be great if you could use some sort of tag plus number and or file menu tool to break chunks of text into drafts, chapters and/or sections. I currently keep every revision of a work in the same text file. It’s very handy, but, admittedly, it does lead to a lot of scrolling sometimes (although I insert manual tag cues that allow me to use ctrl+f to find the beginning of each draft). To me, such breaks are much more natural units for thinking about the text (and navigating through it) than pages.

 Customizable navigation pane

One of the reasons I use a text editor is that when you have it open there’s very little stuff you have to work with — no toolbars or ribbons or whatever. What I would like, though, would be the ability to open up a navigation pane/sidebar that would display the draft, chapter and sections of the open document. Even better would be if you could customize the sidebar to also list supporting text files (worldbuilding stuff, list of names, etc.). It would sort of be a minimalist Scrivener, but since everything lives in text files, you aren’t locked in to any one platform or even one way of organizing the information. If you want to make a bunch of separate text files for a writing project, you could do that. Or if you want to keep everything in just one or two, that would also work.

Extra word count features

All text editors can do a basic document or selected text word count. I’d like expanded word count features such as a wordcout countdown (for writing sprints) and chapter or section word count (see above).

Word frequency tool

I’d also like a word frequency tool that generates smart (as in, it leaves out words like ‘and’ or ‘or’) word frequency lists for a document, draft version, chapter, section or chunk of highlighted text. Reading level/readability analysis would also be interesting, but wouldn’t be a high priority for me.

In conclusion

The problem with most text input programs is they are overkill — they try to also be layout programs. Text editors are minimalist, which is awesome. But with a few extra, non-obtrusive tools, they could be ideal for writers. Now, I realize most writers aren’t going to break their MS Word habit. And it’s true that once you get to the submission stage and/or to the stage where you’re working with an editor, you’re going to need to layout it out in Word and, likely, use track changes. But there’s no reason everything up to that point can’t be done in a text editor. And I, at least, find that I’m productive working that way. In fact, since upping my output of fiction, I’ve found it quite lovely. Uncluttered is awesome. Now if only there were just a few more writerly-oriented, non-screen-cluttering features and a truly cross-platform/device option.